• One Thing Better
  • Posts
  • Researchers Found A Unique Way That Kids Solve Problems. Can It Help Adults Too?

Researchers Found A Unique Way That Kids Solve Problems. Can It Help Adults Too?

There's more than one way to solve a tricky challenge.

How do people solve complex problems?

Here’s the basic, scientific answer: We use what are called “cognitive control functions” — meaning that our brain can carve out the information that’s relevant to a task, and then protect it against distraction.

In other words, we focus.

But researchers got to wondering: How do children solve complex problems? After all, their brains aren’t fully developed, so they don’t have the same level of focus and concentration that adults do. And yet, children are also capable of solving complex problems.

So the researchers ran a test. The results are fascinating: Children use creative “shortcuts” to compensate for their lack of focus.

Here’s how this can improve our own problem-solving abilities.

The research took place at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and its report makes for great reading. It begins with an observation: Because adults solve problems through focused concentration, we often believe that we must teach children how to concentrate better. “Developmental research has therefore often focused on children’s improvements in these functions,” the report says.

But… what if that’s not the only way to solve problems?

“Truly flexible goal-directed behavior also involves improving one’s current decision making strategy,” the report says.

Translation: If you want to develop better ways of solving problems, you don’t just drill down on one strategy. You develop a person’s ability to improve their strategies on the fly.

Do children naturally do this? That’s what the test was for: Researchers asked dozens of children (ages 8 – 10) and adults (ages 20 – 35) to complete a pattern-matching task. This task required concentration and would not be easy for kids to do.

But here’s the thing: There was a hidden strategy to solving the problem, which involved noticing a pattern of colors. The researchers never mentioned or even hinted at this. But if participants figured it out themselves, they’d have a much easier time solving the task.

The results? When using the regular strategy to solve the problem, children did much worse than adults. That was expected. It required a level of concentration that kids just don’t have.

But here’s where it gets awesome — because 27.5% of the children figured out the hidden strategy themselves, and therefore did better. That’s almost the same as the percentage of adults (28.2%) who figured the strategy out.

Conclusion: When a child can’t complete a task one way, they look for creative solutions.

This is in line with other interesting research into how children solve problems. The report ticks a bunch of them off, including:

  • “Children have been found to outperform adults in detecting changes in shapes they were not cued to attend and in remembering information that is irrelevant for the instructed task” (study)

  • “Children may be more eager to explore less known options than adults” (study)

  • “Children are remarkably variable in the strategies they employ, when even performing the same task” (study)

The Max Planck Institute researchers see this as a lesson about education: If we know that children are naturally creative problem solvers, then we can help them develop ways “to spontaneously use adaptive strategies” — which is to say, to become even more creative problem solvers.

I hope you see the adult application here too.

When we are stuck, it is often because we believe there is one way to solve a problem. But that’s not the case. In fact, I was just talking with the serial entrepreneur Naveen Jain, who has launched massively successful companies in wildly different arenas like space and healthcare. He told me that expertise is often a liability — because if you’re trained to look at a problem one way, you’ll block out all the other avenues to explore it.

This also makes me think of a memorable conversation I had with Lee Rainie, who is director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. We were talking about the way technology has changed our lives, and how people often (falsely) interpret those changes as bad, and he said:

"The mark of a learned person used to be, how much do you have in your head, but in an era where you can literally look up the answer in your smartphone, the capacity to do rapid pattern recognition is elevated. Does that make for a dumber or smarter society? It makes for a different society."

This is a wonderful point. There is no one way to be smart, just as there is no one way to solve a problem. We instead adapt our intelligence to the needs in front of us.

We are never fully stuck, no matter the challenges or changes.

What we need is to embrace our flexibility.

I'm on the McKinsey Summer Reading List!

Researchers Found A Unique Way That Kids Solve Problems. Can It Help Adults Too?

This is pretty awesome — my book Build for Tomorrow was included on McKinsey & Company's summer books list.

It was nominated by Neil Hoyne, Google's chief strategist, who wrote that my book "distills down lessons from the world's most successful change makers" and contains "conversations we all wish we could have personally but are fortunate enough to share in through his wonderful storytelling."

Thanks to Neil and McKinsey for the honor.

Let's Connect!

Like what you read? Subscribe and take control of your future.

🕵🏻‍♀️ Looking for more lessons to help you change? Check archives.

💌 What do you think? Let me know!

👋 Say hello on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

📕 Pre-order my book to become more adaptable in your career!

Cover credit: Getty Images / Flashpop